On 20 February 1862, a year into the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s third son, Willie, died of a fever. He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. This first novel, published at the age of fifty-eight by the bestselling short-story writer George Saunders, takes over from there. Set on a single night in the cemetery, it describes Willie’s sojourn in the hereafter with a company of jabbering spirits who don’t yet know they’re dead. ‘A beam from the ceiling came down, hitting me just here, as I sat at my desk,’ one muses. ‘Fortunately, it is a minor surgery only,’ says another. ‘I came to this here town with seven dolers stitched in of my panse and do not intend to go any damn plase until someone tell me where in Hel is my dolers,’ complains a mournful third. Occasionally, with a flash and a loud report, known to the post-lifers as the ‘matterlightblooming phenomenon’, a soul passes over to the great beyond. Others hang around, sometimes for years. ‘Truth be told, there was not one among the many here – not even the strongest – who did not entertain some lingering doubt about the wisdom of his or her choice.’
Trapped in the bardo – in Tibetan Buddhist thought, a hallucinatory transitional state between lives – each disembodied consciousness has an overt or covert reason for staying put. Their stories emerge on the page in little quoted blurts, each meticulously attributed with a period-appropriate name at the end: Roger Bevins III, Elson Farwell, Mrs Abigail Blass. Then, for the dead, the unthinkable happens. A living figure enters the graveyard, pulls Willie Lincoln’s corpse from its niche and takes it in his arms. The grieving president, in a transitional state of his own, has come to talk to his dead son. Within minutes, the residents of Oak Hill are queuing six deep at the door of the Lincoln sepulchre, keen to ask their questions and tell their stories. ‘How had it felt, being held like that? Had the visitor really promised to come again? Had he offered any hope for the alteration of the boy’s fundamental circumstance? If so, might said hope extend to us as well?’
The dead aren’t the only voices in this patchwork novel of quotations. Interleaved with the bardo passages and mimicking their overlapping, competitive style are chapters drawn from real histories of the Lincolns and the civil war. Some are primary sources, like the extracts from the memoir of the freed slave Elizabeth Keckley; some are secondary ones, like the passages from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. And some are stealthily fabricated by the author, who has claimed that ‘some things that seem invented are true [and] some things that seem true are invented’. The result is a babble of American voices, calling back to literary ancestors such as Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology and the last act of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, but telling its own bizarre story of rescue and redemption on both sides of the great divide.
At times, it’s huge fun. Saunders’s afterlife is a confusing and abstract realm, with plenty of space for his distinctively surreal imagination to run about. Bounded in their graveyard and hemmed in by a ‘dreaded iron fence’ they are forbidden to cross, the spirits of Oak Hill take spectral forms that denote their attachments to the world. One, beaned by a beam just before consummating his marriage, floats about naked in the shadow of his cartoonishly huge penis; he is, he maintains, simply being held in a ‘sick-box’ in his ‘stone home’ until he can return to his waiting wife.
Others are in similarly perilous states. A soul of a ‘certain predilection’, who opened a vein when his male lover resolved to leave him and ‘live correctly’, is so enthralled by sights and sensations that he manifests as a flurry of eyes, noses and hands. The astral remnant of a young woman, seething with fury, flickers between forms – ‘the fallen bridge, the vulture, the large dog, the terrible hag gorging on black cake, the stand of flood-ravaged corn, the umbrella ripped open by a wind we could not feel’ – while a former hunter sits in front of a heap of dead animals ‘each of which he must briefly hold, with loving attention, for a period ranging from several hours to several months’. As ghosts pass through Lincoln, they are able to divine not just his innermost thoughts on grief and war – the source of some of the book’s most restrained and moving writing – but also ‘the way his long legs lay’ and ‘how it is to have a beard’. The audiobook of Lincoln in the Bardo, a seven-hour, 166-voice adaptation featuring, among others, Lena Dunham, David Sedaris, Susan Sarandon, Ben Stiller and Don Cheadle, is going to be a treat.
The result is a many-headed, many-voiced book that swoops between emotional states, from wild hilarity to intense sadness. It is a comic novel of genuine seriousness and its consolations, when they come, are profound. Lincoln may stalk out of this text freighted with the cares of a nation and inhabited by the spirits of the unquiet dead, but his mind, Saunders writes, is already inclining
toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact … and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.